Emotions run high for Clinton’s Vietnam trip

The Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2000

WESTMINSTER — Standing only a few feet from each other at a Little Saigon mall, John Lee and Doreen Ng were worlds apart when it came to their thoughts on President Clinton’s visit to Vietnam. 

The 23-year-old Ng has hopes of improved economic relations between the United States and Vietnam: “It’s about money. The economy is good and younger people go back there all the time to look for opportunities.” 

But for the 38-year-old Lee, there is lingering suspicion about any dealings with the communist government his family fled in 1979. 

“How can he go there?” said Lee, whose father was placed in a “re-education camp” in Vietnam. “Of course, I think we should help the people. They are so poor. But not this way. Not with this visit.” 

It is a divide that runs deep in Orange County’s Little Saigon, home to 300,000 Vietnamese, the largest such community outside of Vietnam. 

It is a divide that was made all the more stark Thursday as Clinton became the first American president to visit Vietnam in the 25 years since the war ended with a communist takeover of South Vietnam. 

Clinton has said he hopes his meetings with top leaders will improve relations. He has already lifted a trade embargo and restored diplomatic relations. The two nations signed a sweeping trade agreement in July. 

Political passions run so high in Little Vietnam that anyone who says something favorable about Vietnam risks being branded a communist. Last year, protesters angrily denounced a Little Saigon store owner who hung a poster of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in his window. 

In Little Saigon, news reports about Clinton’s trip rank above the question of who will become the next president. 

Radio debates rage on the community’s two leading stations, with some saying the trip is good for the economic future of the two countries and others calling it a communist conspiracy. The debate has spilled from the airwaves into Little Saigon’s restaurants and other businesses. 

“If you think the United States should normalize relations with Vietnam, then they call you a communist. If you think they shouldn’t, they accuse you of not caring about human rights,” said Westminster Councilman Tony Lam, 64, the first Vietnamese-American elected to public office in the United States. 

Lam, who owns the Viet Dong restaurant, advocates normalizing relations with Vietnam. 

“We should turn the page of history and move away from the dark era,” he said. “I’m not forgetting the sacrifice of the U.S. soldiers and the Vietnamese people. I just feel we should not put hatred and suspicion in front of our eyes.” 

An Ngoc, a 56-year-old customer dining at the restaurant, was quick to respond. 

“I, too, want to help the people of Vietnam, but not at the price of helping the government,” he said. “They won’t help the people. They will help themselves.” 

Down the street at the Asian Garden Mall, where Lee and Ng offered their views, Cathy Tran said the real question is whether the trip will result in any benefit for the two countries. 

“People talk, talk, talk,” said Tran, owner of a music store at the mall. “The people who make the decision haven’t talked yet.”